Stray thoughts on abbreviations in some modern European languages

M. J. Driscoll

The medieval practice of using abbreviations, both to spare the scribe the labour of writing words which, due to their frequency generally or in a particular text, could easily be understood in an abbreviated form, and in order to save parchment and ink, derives, like so much else, from antiquity. In Roman times there were three systems of abbreviation in use: the notæ juris, which were used extensively in legal documents (hence the name), the Tironian notæ, a system of shorthand signs developed by Cicero’s secretary Tiro, and the nomina sacra, contracted forms of the words for “God” and the name “Jesus Christ”, borrowed by the early Christians from Hebrew. The Latin system was taken over more or less wholesale in manuscripts written in the vernacular languages, but in general the use of abbreviations was never as great in the vernacular languages as it had been in Latin. An exception to this are Old Norse, and especially Icelandic, manuscripts, which both in terms of frequency and variety of abbreviations exceed even Latin practice. There were also a number of Icelandic innovations, such as the use of small capitals and dotted letters to indicate geminate consonants.

It is customary to divide abbreviations into various categories. Most, following Chassant, Dictionnaire des abréviations latines et françaises (Paris, 1846; repr. 1965), have four; Cappelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane (Milano, 61961), has six. From a “bottom-line” point of view, though, abbreviations may be said to be of two types: in the first, some of the word is written out and the rest omitted, the omission often being indicated in some way by a sign or mark of punctuation; in the second, a special sign, perhaps originating in a letter or combination of letters but no longer recognisable as such, is used in place of a letter, a combination of letters, a complete word, or, in some cases, a phrase. Within these types there are various subtypes: the first group can be divided into suspensions, where only the first letter or letters of the word is written out, and contractions, where the initial and final letters are written and some or all of the intervening letters are omitted; the second group can be divided into tittles on the one hand and brevigraphs on the other. One can, if one is so inclined, spend many hours identifying types and subtypes of abbreviations, or indeed virtually any other phenomenon. Doing so, or at least doing so and then talking about it, is probably not the best way to win friends and influence people, however; I speak from experience.

The practice of abbreviation has survived into the modern era, and examples are found in abundance in the various modern European languages. There are dozens of letterlike symbols in use, many of which have their origin in ancient or medieval abbreviations. The ampersand, &, one of the Tironian notæ, is still very much with us (the 7-shaped version is still used in Irish). Although it is originally a ligature of e and t, it is read “and”, “og”, “und” etc.; considered a letter in its own right, it used to be printed at the end of the alphabet. The origin of the now ubiquitous @-sign (the “commercial at”) is not completely clear. It has been claimed (B. L. Ullman, Ancient writing and its influence (New York, 1932), p. 187) that it is a ligature of “a” and “d” — in the manner of & — representing the word “ad” (to, toward, at). If true, this would mean that its current use in email-addresses represented a nice return to origins (from “at a [unit] price of”, which was its meaning for several hundred years before being abducted into cyber-space), even though it was chosen at random by Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of e-mail, who was simply looking for a symbol on standard keyboards that didn’t occur naturally in people’s names and wasn’t a digit. Unfortunately there is no actual evidence for such usage in older sources (it is not, for example, listed in Capelli). A new theory, for which there is evidence, is that it began as an abbreviation for “amphora”, a measure of capacity based on the two-handled terracotta jars used to transport grain and liquid in the ancient Mediterranean. The only problem with this theory is that it is far from obvious how an abbreviation for “amphora”, used as a unit of measure, came to signify “at a [unit] price of”, whereas there is no such problem with ad. In Danish this is expressed by à (or now simply a, as Dansk sprognævn, infinite in its wisdom and mercy, has declared that no words in Danish should have to have accents), which is borrowed from the French à, which derives from Latin ad. German uses à in the same way.

The names by which the @-sign is known in the various European languages are many and varied, and would make a suitable subject for a separate Festschrift article. A considerable number have to do with tails and/or monkeys, e.g. Dutch apestartje, German Klammeraffe, Serbian majmun and Bulgarian маймунско а. Other languages have references to the tails of other animals, e.g. Finnish kissanhäntä, “cat’s tail”, or Russian собачка, “little dog”. Danish, rather untypically it must be said, focuses on the front end of the animal and calls it snabel-a, an a with an elephant’s trunk (the word itself is borrowed from German Schnabel, a nose), although, truer to form, grisehale has sometimes also been used. Hungarian has kukac, “worm”. Several languages use the word for snail, e.g. Italian chiocciola, French, informally at least, escargot, Hebrew shablul and even Esperanto heliko, which also has atelo “spider monkey”. The Czechs have zavinác, “rollmops”, which I think is rather sweet.

Occasionally part of a symbol is misconstrued as a letter. The so-called “prescription” sign is often written and even referred to as Rx, but the x is actually a bar crossing the leg of the R — an abbreviation for “recipe” (the imperative “take”). Viz. is similarly an abbreviation for “videlicet”, where the z is the semi-colon- or 3-shaped sign (when reading aloud, one is instructed in the handbooks, viz. should be pronounced /neImlI/). The z in oz., “ounces”, has the same origin.

Suspensions and contractions are still very much with us too. The former are of various kinds. First there are the so-called litteræ singulares, where only the initial letter of the word is written out. This is the most common form of abbreviation in the ancient world, and probably also in the modern. In some languages, Danish and Icelandic for example, it is common to take the first several letters if they represent a consonant cluster, suspending the word only at the first vowel. Sometimes in suspensions the whole first syllable is used, as in the abbreviations for the names of the months, “Jan.”, “Feb.” etc. There is also syllabic suspension, where the first letter of each syllable is given, e.g. “cf.” for “confer”, calqued in many languages, such as Danish “jf.” for “jævnfør”, and also a combination of the two, where the whole of the first syllable is given and the first letter of the second.

Contractions are essentially of two kinds. In the first, only the initial and final letters of the word are written out and all intervening letters omitted, e.g. “Dr”. In the second, all or most of the consonants are allowed to stand but all vowels (and frequently also the nasal consonants n and m) are omitted, e.g. “bldg.” for “building”, “apt.” for “apartment” (I have even seen “bsmt.” for “basement”), which are frequently found in America, for example, or Hrsg. for “Herausgeber” (or “Herausgeberin”, “Herausgeberinnen” etc.); “herausgegeben” can also be abbreviated in this way, only with a small initial h, although it is sometimes abbreviated hrsgg.

There is a rule (in English and a number of other languages), followed more in the breech than in the practice, which states that contractions, where the last letter of the abbreviation is also the last letter of the word, should not be followed by a point, whereas suspensions should (advocated for example by Fowler in Modern English Usage). One should thus write “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Dr” and “St” (for “Saint”, and also for “Street”, unless you think the “t” is actually the second letter in the word rather than the last), but “Feb.”, “Rev.” etc. If the “Dr” in “Dr Tværgade” refers to the monarch, it should have a point, if it is an academic title, it should not.

Practice regarding marks of punctuation in contractions varies greatly. In some languages a mark, either a point or colon, is placed inside the contraction, to represent the suppressed letters. They write prof.ssa for “professora”, for “signorina” in Italian, for example, while Swedish uses n:o for “numero”, 4:o for “quarto”, 1:a for “första” etc. (The apostrophe in words like can’t could be said to be the same sort of thing, although these forms are not usually regarded as abbreviations.) In some Slavic languages, notably Russian and Bulgarian, dashes are commonly used in contractions, such as д-р for “доктор” (others, for example Czech, use a final point, dr., or, as in Polish and Serbian, generally leave the abbreviation unmarked, dr). The solidus, slash or virgule can also be used in abbreviations, but is rare: normally these are compound words, such as w/o, “without”, or short phrases such as c/o “care of” (more or less now international), a/o, “account of” and a/s, “addressed to the subject”; all of these can also be written with uppercase letters, or, for the last three at least, with the first letter superscript (℅ etc.); there are even special symbols defined for these in Unicode (℅, ℀ and ℁). In Danish there is A/S or a/s “aktieselskab”, t/r “tur/retur”, as well as M/S “motorskib” and S/S “steamship” (both from English), now more commonly MS and SS). In Bulgarian slashes are used in much the same way, e.g. п/п for “подполниковник” (lieutenant colonel), but also sometimes in contractions, e.g. м/у for “между” (between), where one might otherwise expect a hyphen. The preposition “with” and its equivalents in other languages is often abbreviated with a slash, “w/”, “m/” etc., in particular, for some reason, on menus. Slashes are also used in the sense “per”, as in “60 km/h”, and obviously also in the percent sign (%) and fractions (½) — typographers would distinguish between this, which they would call a solidus, and the ordinary slash or virgule (/).

In many languages the final letter or letters of contractions will be written superscript. This is perhaps most common nowadays with numbers, e.g. 7th, 4to etc., but was once much more prevalent: “yr obt servt” and the like. In these cases there is normally no point or other indication that any letters have been omitted, apart from the fact of writing the letters above the line. An exception to this in the abbreviation for “number” (“numero”), where one does frequently see a horizontal line, or two, under the superscript o: №. There is even a special Unicode character for this symbol (№).

Plurals are sometimes indicated through doubling, where a letter (or letters) is written twice in order to indicate that the plural is intended. Most examples of this in use in English (true also of most other European languages) are derived from Latin, even if felt to stand for the vernacular words, e.g. MSS/mss for “manuscripts” (MS/ms = manuscriptum, MSS/mss = manuscripta), which can be written either with uppercase letters with or, more commonly, without a point, or with lowercase letters, normally with a point; and pp. for “pages”, which is usually if not always written lowercase and with a point. Examples of this from other languages are EE.UU. in Spanish for “Estados Unidos” and so on.

Mr, Mrs and Ms deserve special treatment. Mr, originally an abbreviation for “master”, is pronounced, and occasionally written out, “mister”. Mrs, used of married women, is pronounced /mIsIz/, but only in certain informal situations can it be written out in full, as “missis” or “missus”, and then only in the sense of wife (“Cor, wouldn’t mind having half an hour with his missus!”). It is originally an abbreviation of the word “mistress”, which is the feminine equivalent of “master”, but has now taken on another meaning. Derived from Mrs is Miss, used, previously at least, of unmarried women; it is not perceived as an abbreviation and therefore never written with a point. The form Ms, pronounced /mIz/, was introduced in the 70s to avoid having a distinction made between married and unmarried women. It appears to be an abbreviation, but it is in no way clear of what. The plural of Mr, oddly enough, is Messrs, which is an abbreviation, while the plural of Mrs is Mesdames, which isn’t. Both forms are rare, the latter especially so.

Certainly the most common form of abbreviation today is the acronym, of which our age is so fond. Strictly speaking, an acronym is a word, pronounceable as a word within the normal word patterns of the language in question, which is formed from the initial letters of other words. If it is pronounced as a sequence of letters, rather than as a word, it is an initialism: NATO and AIDS are acronyms; BBC and URL are initialisms. Many use the term “acronym” for both types, but it does seem a useful distinction. There are also syllabic acronyms, where the first syllables of two or more words are combined to form a word. Many of these have rather negative connotations, such as Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) and Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst), but there are also relatively harmless examples, such as modem (modulator-demodulator).

There are some acronyms which most people don’t realise are acronyms, such as radar (radio detecting and ranging - the invention of Sir Robert Alexander Wilson-Watt, a Scot!), laser (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). The American slang term snafu, which dates from World War II, is not perhaps as common as it once was, but I doubt all those who do use it realise it stands for “situation normal, all fouled up” (in the polite version). In computer circles the words foo and bar are often used as metasyntactic variables (the way mathematicians use “a” and “b”); it appears to derive from another WWII slang-term, fubar meaning (again in the polite version) “fouled-up beyond all recognition” (or “beyond all repair”). Then there are “backronyms”, words which are interpreted as acronyms although they were not originally so intended. Twain, the name of the scanner interface standard, for example, was apparently taken from Kipling’s “and never the twain shall meet”, but the large number of acronyms in the computer industry led people to assume that Twain, especially when the TWAIN standards organisation decided to start spelling it in all uppercase, must also be one. But what could it stand for? One suggestion was “Technology Without An Interesting Name”.

Acronyms which are already words, either coincidentally, such as Richard Nixon’s singularly appropriate CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President), or intentionally, e.g. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), are generally pronounced as such. But sometimes, as with the WHO (World Heath Organisation), the obvious word-pronunciation is rejected in favour of pronunciation as an initialism, perhaps to avoid confusion with the well-known British rock group. But people also try to turn acronyms into pronounceable words in ways which require a bit of inventiveness. This tendency is not least apparent in the fast-paced, exciting world of IT. It is not, for example, readily apparent that SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) should be pronounced like the American “scuzzy” (a back formation from “disgusting”).

Practice regarding the punctuation of acronyms and initialisms varies somewhat. Many, especially the names of organisations, begin by being written with uniform capitals and points but eventually attain the status and shape of ordinary words: U.N.E.S.C.O. becomes UNESCO and then finally Unesco. Others, especially those which are words in their own right, e.g. SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), tend to be written with capitals but without points. Where confusion is possible, there seems to be a tendency to retain the points, e.g. The man from U.N.C.L.E.. Some, mostly the names of inventions, are written with small letters and no points, and, as was mentioned above, are often not recognised as being abbreviations. Where common phrases are abbreviated using the initial letters of the words making up the phrase, these are normally written in lowercase letters, generally with points in between. This is true of both phrases from Latin, e.g., i.e. and so on, and phrases in the language in question. In English it is, I think, only possible to write lowercase letters with points in between or, especially in email- and chatroomese, uppercase letters without points, i.e. either b.t.w. or BTW for “by the way”. In many other languages it is customary to use a single point at the end, usw. for “und so weiter”, mvh. for “med venlig hilsen”. According to the Håndbog i nudansk, in most cases where several words are abbreviated it is regarded as equally correct to place a single point at the end as it is to place one in between the individual letters, but with certain phrases only the former is possible; for example “og så videre” can apparently only be abbreviated as osv., not o.s.v. (one wonders how they decide such things). German, because of its capitalisation rules, freely mixes upper and lower-case letters in abbreviations of this kind, e.g. GmbH, “Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung” (normally without a point), something which would look rather odd in English.

In the nature of stray thoughts, those presented here on abbreviations do not lead to any conclusion. Instead, I will end with an abbreviation joke.

In Hungarian it is common to abbreviate Boldog új évet kívánok (”Happy New Year”), either as B.ú.é.k., with four points, or BÚÉK, written all in caps. There is a joke about an actor who was standing in for a colleague. He hadn’t learned the part properly, but was hoping to get by with the help of the prompter. At some point the script called for him to disappear from the stage, but he didn’t remember that, so there he stood, waiting for a hint. Bújjék! Bújjék! the prompter whispered (“Hide! Hide!”). Whereupon our hero shouted triumphantly: Boldog új évet kívánok!

© M. J. Driscoll   This article first appeared in Grace-notes played for Michael Chesnutt on the occasion of his 60th birthday, 18 September 2002 (Copenhagen, 2002). I am, once again, grateful to Ivan Derzhanski of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for supplying me with much of the information given here on abbreviation practices in the Slavic languages. The joke is also his.